Are you still having that dream about Hawaii? The one where you’re at the beach sipping a Mai Tai? Hawaii is a rich and beautiful place with unique nuances between each island. Read more for a breakdown of what makes each island special and other essential things to keep in mind when picking your destination.
Known for: Kaua’i is also known as “The Garden Isle” because of the tropical rainforest blanketing most of the land. Kaua’i is small at just 25 miles long and 33 miles wide, with roughly 77,000 locals, but represents the land of discovery for Hawaiian culture and the spirit of aloha. The iconic island scenery appears as the backdrop to several movies, including Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Hawaii, and Lilo & Stitch.
“The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain is draped in emerald valleys, sharp mountain spires, and jagged cliffs aged by time and the elements. Centuries of growth have formed tropical rainforests, forking rivers, and cascading waterfalls! Some parts of Kauai are only accessible by sea or air, revealing views beyond your imagination.”
Things to do: Kaua’i is full of small towns like Hanapepe and Koloa, where visitors can taste local cuisine and culture. Because of some exclusive access points, it’s a great destination for water activities and sky tours like kayaking the Wailua River or ziplining across the valleys. Other activities include snorkeling, horseback riding, and hiking.
Things to note: Most of the Kaua’i hiking trails require a permit. To obtain, call the State Parks Office at (808)-274-3444. To learn more about Kaua’i trails, go to their website.
Major regions: North Shore (Princeville), East Side (Coconut Coast), Lihue (Kalapaki), South Shore (Poipu), West Side (Waimea).
Airport: Lihue Airport, LIH with services from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines
Oahu Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority
Known for: The heart of Hawaii is also known as “The Gathering Place,” which is home to the capital city of Honolulu and the majority of Hawaii’s diverse population. This melting pot fuses cultures from the East and West with the values and traditions of Native Hawaii. Oahu is the third-largest island with world-famous surf, Waikiki beach, historic China Town, and Pearl Harbor.
“It’s this fundamental contrast between the ancient and the modern that makes discovering Oahu — from bustling city life to laidback surf towns — so enjoyable. Oahu, the child of Papa and Lua according to one tradition, is honored in this chant composed by Kumu Hula Manu Boyd and performed by Kumu Hula Snowbird Bento.”
Things to do: Oahu’s bustling from Honolulu’s affluent culture where you can dine at farm-to-table restaurants, visit historic destinations, experience hula. Beyond learning to surf, you can explore the ocean by taking a group outrigger canoe ride off Waikiki Beach.
Things to note: Oahu is the most affordable island for travelers. The competitive prices offer up the ideal budget vacation between the abundance of hotels, activities, city life, and attractions.
Major regions: North Shore, Honolulu, Central Oahu, Windward Coast, Leeward Coast
Airport: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, HNL. Also known as the Honolulu International airport.
Molokai Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority
Known for: Hawaii’s fifth-largest island is only 38 miles long and 10 miles across its widest point, making it easily accessible by foot, bike, or car. The highest sea cliffs in the world populate the island and the longest continuous reef. The majority of Molokai’s population preserves the island roots of rural lifestyles.
“Whether you’re led by a guide along the cliffs leading to Kalaupapa National Historical Park or discovering Papohaku Beach, one of Hawaii’s largest white-sand beaches, Molokai is truly an island of outdoor adventure where Hawaii’s past comes alive!”
Things to do: The best thing to do in Molokai is to explore the deep jungles, cathedral valleys, beaches, and one of the most remote settlements in the world. The ancient Halawa Valley features one of Hawaii’s most iconic landscapes. Anglers and divers celebrate Molokai for its diverse underwater landscapes.
Things to note: This island is considered the “getaway” for inter-island travelers, with some of the most deserted beaches among the Hawaiian islands.
Major regions: West End, Central Molokai, East End
Airport: Hoolehua Airport, MKK. Mokulele Airlines services inter-island flights from Oahu or Maui.
Lanai Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority
Known for: This is the smallest inhabited island open for travelers to Hawaii. Located only nine miles away from Maui, yet it feels like a whole other world. Visitors can indulge at luxurious resorts or take a 4-wheel-drive to explore hidden treasures. Lanai is known for its serenity, adventure, and privacy.
“Take the rocky road to Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach) for dazzling views of Molokai and Maui, go horseback riding amid lush valleys and ironwood forests near Lanai City, amble the Munro Trail through the lush rainforest to Lanai’s highest point at 3,370 feet—the opportunities for adventure on Lanai are endless.”
Things to do: There are 400 miles of dirt roads, hiking trails, and 18 miles of secluded beaches. With that, the world is yours. You can hike, explore the parks and gardens, ride horses, go clay shooting or enjoy an archery adventure. Get on the water at sunset for a romantic boat ride or go whale watching.
Things to note: Some of the best whale watching can happen in the ocean channels between Lanai, Maui, and Molokai when humpback whales travel to Hawaii in winter and spring. There are only a few ways to get here, and it’s from another island.
Major regions: North Lanai, Central Lanai, South Lanai
Airport: Lanai Airport, LNY. Local flights services inter-island travelers from either Oahu or Maui.
Maui Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority
Known for: Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii and is affectionately called “The Valley Isle.” The island is loved for its world-famous beaches, the sacred Iao Valley, and the magnificent sunrise and sunset from Haleakala. Haleakala National Park encompasses the island’s tallest peak, volcanic Haleakala.
“It’s not surprising Maui has been voted “Best Island in the U.S.” by Condé Nast Traveler readers for more than 20 years.”
Things to do: Whether you choose the spa route or the adventure route, there is a lot to do. Choose from 14 courses (several of which are ranked at or near the top of the “world’s best” lists). One local tourist spot is the Haleakala Ecotours, an authorized concessionaire for Haleakala National Park. The scenic Hana Highway can take you all along the island’s 30 miles of beaches, including golden-crescent Kapalua, sheltered from strong currents by lava-rock promontories.
Major regions: Maui comprises five regions known as West Maui, Central Maui, South Maui, Upcountry, and East Maui.
Airport: Kahului Aiport, OGG or the regional, private airport Kapula Aiport, JHM on the west side of the island.
The Big Island courtesy of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority
Island of Hawaii
Known for: “The Big Island,”’ is the largest and the youngest in the Hawaiian chain. It’s nearly twice the size of all the other islands combined with four different climate zones, including a polar tundra resulting from the shielding effects of its massive volcanoes.
“The island of Hawaii is an unrivaled expression of the power of nature. However you decide to experience the island, it is sure to leave you humbled!”
Things to do: Travelers can ride horses along waterfalls trails or explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National park, which offers plenty of hiking trails like the Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube) or the Devastation Trail. You can stargaze on the mountain tops, tour a coffee farm, or hang out on the beach. There’s more beach here than any of the other islands. You can even go on a Manta Ray dive at night.
Things to note: Make sure you read up on safe hiking practices on the island trails. Some can be pretty difficult or unsafe. Don’t hike alone and tell someone where you are going. Don’t drink any of the water on the trails or wade in with open cuts. For more information, go here.
Major regions: Kohala, Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Puna, Kohala, Kona, Kau
Airport: Kona International Airport, KOA.
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